What’s the story behind Earp’s Buntline Special?

In True West, Rock Island Auction advertised a “Rare, Historical Presentation Colt Single Action Army Buntline Revolver with Factory Inscription to Walter Earp and factory letter.” I thought the Buntline Special was a legend. What’s the story here?

Ralph P. Voogd

Parkersburg, Iowa

This is not Walter Earp, Wyatt’s grandfather, nor is it Walter Earp, Wyatt’s uncle. This Walter was a descendant of Wyatt’s older half-brother Newton.

In 1957, Colt made a second generation Buntline Special to take advantage of the popular ABC show The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. At about that same time, Walter Earp gained his 15 minutes of fame by appearing on the CBS game show The $64,000 Question. Colt—always quick on the publicity draw—presented Walter with a new Buntline Special. That’s the gun Rock Island advertised for its September sale this year (see Collecting the West), but it did not meet its minimum bid of $15,000.

Colt manufactured about 30 long-barreled pistols between 1873 and 1940, but they were not called “Buntlines,” says Jim Dunham, director of special projects at the Booth Museum in Georgia. All of those guns had 16-inch barrels that were left unattached. When someone ordered one with a shorter barrel than that but longer than the standard 7 1/2-inch barrel, Colt cut off the barrel to the requested length and charged the buyer $1 for every inch over the standard.

Just for the sake of discussion, Dunham offers another interesting theory to chew on. Showman Ned Buntline could have handed out long-barreled pistols to Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Bill Tilghman and other notables. All were well known in the Dodge City, Kansas, area in the late 1870s, as Stuart Lake stated in 1931’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Buntline was around, looking for replacements in his Wild West show after Buffalo Bill Cody, Texas Jack Omohundro and Wild Bill Hickok had left to pursue other ventures. Buntline might have presented Wyatt and the others with special pistols as an enticement to go on stage (none of them did it).

“Wait,” you say, “Colt doesn’t have a record of any shipments to Buntline.”

True—but Buntline was at the Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia where Colt was displaying its pistols. He could have purchased several at that time. Buntline also visited the company headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut. He might have bought some there. Either case would not require a record of a shipment.

Did it happen? Who knows, but it’s possible. That’s why one should always keep an open mind. That’s also why the Old West holds a fascination for so many people.

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